It’s time to talk about power: the future of the Liberal Democrats
Vince Cable is leaving the Liberal Democrats in a pretty good place. We’ve just come second in a national election for the first time, made our largest ever gain of seats at local elections and party membership is over 100,000 and still rising. It’s rare for a political leader to get to leave at a time of their own choosing and with the party in a good position, but Vince has managed it. While I have had issues with some of his decisions as party leader, particularly internal ones, it would be churlish to spend time on some sort of retrospective critique of the last couple of years, especially when the most important thing for the party to do now is prepare for the future.
For once, I’m going into a party leadership contest without being involved in any of the campaigns and without being sure about which way my vote will go. (As a disclaimer, that likely wouldn’t have been the case if Layla Moran had stood, but I understand and respect her reasons for choosing not to) I had thought about writing a series of questions for candidates to try and see their opinions on issues important to me but I realised three things: that a lot of other people would be doing the same thing; my questions would likely be leading and passive-aggressive ones about if they agreed with me; and they’d probably not answer them anyway, preferring to focus their time on questions from party organisations with actual memberships and influence.
Instead, I thought I’d lay out my ideas for how to take the party forward and where I would hope that a new leader will be taking us over the next few years. We’ve probably got a bit of a gap now before the candidates start putting forward their visions so I thought I’d put mine forward in that brief silence before the main event starts.
Obviously, in the short term the party has one clear goal: stopping Brexit. I’m not going to use this space to rehash old arguments about democracy being a process rather than an event, or People’s Vote versus straight-out revocation of Article 50, but we do have to accept that whatever happens with Brexit, the issues that caused it are still there and need to be addressed. Stopping it will not reset the clock and take us back to a time before 2016 where we can all pretend it never happened. Brexit was caused by decades of persistent and systematic failures from government and all parties, and we need to be a party that addresses those issues, not one that pretends they’ll go away. Brexit is a symptom of wider problems we need to present a liberal solution for.
More than that, though, we need a big story and a big vision to tell people, something that draws together our ideals and serves as a basis for pushing forward our policies. Too often the whole of the party is much less than the sum of its parts. We have a bewildering amount of individual policies on just about every possible area of activity, but we’re not good at bringing all that together into a big picture for people to latch onto. The party has got 20% or more at three national elections and each of them has been driven by a clear message: Iraq in 2005, change in 2010 and Brexit in 2019. When Paddy brought us up from single digit polling to success it was through pushing big and often unpopular ideas.
What we need to talk about is that big idea central to liberalism: power. Specifically that there are too many people in Britain who have, or feel like they have, no power over their lives while others have vast amounts of it but are never held to account for how the use it. Conrad Russell (see my series about his work) identified the desire to make power accountable as being at the core of the many traditions of British liberalism and it’s to this simple idea that we should return as we look to how we shape the future.
“Take Back Control” was perhaps the most successful political slogan in the UK for years and while we may deplore the cause it was deployed in favour of, it comes from an old liberal rallying cry, deployed by Jeremy Thorpe back in 1974 (another time when the Liberals had a poll surge and made a breakthrough). Why did Take Back Control work? Because people feel that they don’t have control over the world around them and that they’re being blown around by distant and unaccountable forces. Promising them the chance to get some control into their lives was appealing because they wanted to take power back. It’s not their fault that the people promising them that new level of power and control over their lives had no intention of giving them anything of the sort.
Consider the way things are in many areas of our lives. Decisions are made that can have huge effects on people’s lives but there’s no one they can directly hold to account for them. Government services are provided by a bewildering array of agencies, all of them operating in different geographic areas, none of them with anyone recognisably in charge locally. Corporations work on a global scale that almost no one can comprehend and work in financial markets that are now so dominated by algorithms that it’s almost impossible for humans to understand why they do what they do. Jobs have become more and more precarious as wages stagnate, and all of this leaves people feeling that they have no control over their lives, let alone their community, their country, or Europe.
What we don’t need now is a message that we can stop Brexit and go back to how things were before because thing were fine then. They weren’t. Brexit has been a stress test for British politics, and the result of it is clear: our political system is broken on multiple levels. We need to make clear that stopping Brexit is not about returning to the previous status quo, but that it gives us the opportunity to completely rework the current system.
I can almost sense as I write that the hordes of constitutionally-obsessed Lib Dems all reaching for their personal plan of how they’d remodel the British system and how their plan would definitely get the public’s attention, once they’ve had the new system explained to them. It’ll only take half an hour and twenty PowerPoint slides to get the key points over to them…
Being the party of “the system is broken, but don’t worry, we know exactly how to fix it” isn’t going to work for us. What we need instead is a message of “the system is broken, let’s work together to build a new one”. We should be proposing some form of people’s convention that will draw up a whole new way of doing politics in Britain through a process both live and online that gives everyone a chance to contribute and have their say on the way forward. It’s a chance for everyone to talk about what they think is going wrong and where they want the power to be. If we want to move forward from the last few years, then we need to have some sort of national conversation and process to work out how we fix and replace our broken systems, not just hope that we can patch them up, move on, and forget that they’re fundamentally broken.
One specific policy linked to this I’d like to see us adopt is an opposition to the current plans to spend billions on renovating the Palace of Westminster to keep it all entirely as it is. Not only do I think that this is going to blow up as an issue in the next few years — and one the public are not going to be in favour of — it’s a chance to demonstrate our commitment to change and to any decision on this being one for the people, not the politicians. Spending billions on a Commons chamber that’s going to look just like the old one is a commitment to keeping politics the way it is for the foreseeable future. We should be the party saying that this isn’t the way to do things and that plans for any new Parliament need to wait until the people have said what they want Parliament to be. This is fundamental to making giving power back to people a key issue and theme for us both practically in giving the power to decide to the people and symbolically for the party to stand up against the (literally) crumbling old system.
Power, though, is not just about the relationship between the individual and the state, but this is something we as a party have often been reluctant to acknowledge. Unaccountable social and economic power negatively affects people’s lives in many ways, and we can’t be a party that thinks any government action to intervene to prevent is wrong because it’s “illiberal”. The great liberal thinkers and politicians of the past — think Keynes and Beveridge, or Lloyd George and the People’s Budget — understood that government has both the power and the right to act on behalf of the people to correct social evils and redistribute power. We need to be a party that embraces giving people the freedom to do things as much as we celebrate making people free from something. Giving people that freedom means confronting all forms of unaccountable power, particularly that of corporations. It’s about us recognising that the powers that have people working multiple zero-hours contracts in terrible conditions just to earn enough to rent a tiny room need to be confronted and challenged, not blithely ignored in the name of the “free market”.
In the age of #MeToo, we shouldn’t be shocked to discover that there are unaccountable powers deeply entrenched in the fabric of our society. It’s not illiberal to accept that privilege exists and that it needs to be challenged. It’s not illiberal to stand up and confront sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of oppression. It’s not illiberal to use the power of the state to give people the power to escape oppression in their lives and stand up for freedom, and it’s not illiberal for anyone to recognise that people’s lives are affected by prejudice and privilege and take action to help them overcome the effects of the way that unaccountable and often unacknowledged power was used against them. As a party we need to get better at recognising these problems in society (and in the party itself!) and being pro-active in finding ways to deal with them.
Finally, we need to address the climate crisis and get serious about the ways we’re going to fight that. Again, one of the problems people have in the face of catastrophic climate change is that they feel utterly powerless in the face of massive environmental changes that even governments can be too small to do anything about alone. What we can do, though, is start giving people power over the way the UK reduces our CO2 emissions. Rather than a situation where central government decides everything then expects everyone to go along with it, we can localise the process of decarbonisation, creating partnerships across sectors to propose local solutions. It’s not denying the problem, but giving people the power to make their own changes as we work to solve it and making them part of the process.
The lesson of recent years should be obvious to us: this is not a time for sitting on the fence and offering sensible centrist managerialism. It’s a time for us to be bold and radical, to be a party of change, one that offers a vision of the future that’s open, liberal and honest. Can we get a leader who’ll do that?